August 10, 2016

With Police Under Pressure, Training Pays Off

Police officers throughout the country are under unusual pressures on the job these days. Recent police shootings of black men and sniper attacks on police have dominated the news and have created heightened levels of criticism, scrutiny, concern, and fear.

The Princeton Police Department С through many different training initiatives С and the community at large have been grappling with this problem, and an incident that took place last week demonstrated some positive results from their efforts.

At a special forum two weeks ago, local police, religious leaders, municipal officials, and local residents confronted the challenges facing Princeton and other communities nationwide in this climate of alarm, hostility, and violence.

Mayor Liz Lempert and others at the forum talked about the need “to understand a multitude of perspectives,” “to empathize and humanize” on all sides in seeking to move towards reconciliation. She said that on issues of race and community-building “the work in communities like Princeton will set the national model.”

The central portion of the program included speeches and a dialogue between a white police officer, Bill Kieffer, and an African American, former gang member, now a Stone Hill Church elder, Tone Bellamy. The evening ended with vows to keep the dialogue proceeding along the path to understanding, empathy, and “changing the narrative.”

Five days later, the words of Princeton’s well intentioned mayor, police officials and citizens were put to the test in a potentially dangerous incident on the streets and in a house in town.

As reported in last week’s Police Blotter, as Princeton police officers investigated a suspicious vehicle connected to burglaries outside the Princeton area in the early morning hours of Monday, August 1, a man emerged from the bushes on Dodds Lane and ran away, disobeying the officers’ orders to stop.

Later that morning, in responding to an activated car alarm on Harriet Drive, officers noticed a subject matching the description of the man who had eluded them earlier. He ran again. They pursued. Their search led them to an apparently vacant Ewing Street home, where they heard a loud noise, entered the home through an unsecured door, and inside found a pull-down set of stairs leading to a crawl space in the attic.

Officers Chris King and James Martinez there “encountered a male subject kneeling alongside the attic opening and holding an 8-inch object in his hand. The manner in which the object was held was threatening in nature,” according to the police report. Mr. King repeatedly ordered the man, 20-year-old Somerset resident Anthony Eason, to drop the object. The two officers “used verbal commands and de-escalation skills to gain control of the situation and place Eason under arrest,” the police blotter stated.

The object he had been holding was determined to be a piece of plastic, and he was also in possession of a screwdriver. Mr. Eason is also suspected of burglarizing an unlocked vehicle on Ewing Street on July 31. He was arrested and transported to police headquarters.

Police Chief Nick Sutter discussed the importance of police training and praised his officers in using their training to handle this challenging situation.

“The benefit of high level training is clearly illustrated in the way our officers responded to the Eason arrest,” he said. “Our officers were able to methodically contain and search for the suspect. Once located, they used their training to apprehend him without the use of deadly force or any force at all.

“This was clearly a situation that could have resulted in serious consequences but did not because of our officers’ correct tactical applications to the situation.”

Officer Kieffer, in his comments to the July 27 community forum, had also emphasized the proactive training he and his colleagues had received. He mentioned sensitivity training, profiling training, cultural diversity training, and de-escalation training — all important factors in the Eason case and in ongoing police work in Princeton and throughout the country.

Mr. Sutter shared his thoughts on some of the key issues that emerged in the community forum and continue to be a part of the ongoing dialogue. “Clearly the community forum illustrated that there are many different perceptions and feelings with regard to recent national events,” he said. “Many of our training initiatives are targeted at providing our officers with the opportunities to empathize with these different perceptions specifically as they relate to various cultures within our community. We believe strongly that in empathizing with various cultural differences our officers are better equipped to relate to residents they come in contact with and better de-fuse situations that could otherwise escalate.”